Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cleese On Life

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Monty Python’s influence on British popular culture is inarguable. Ask anyone who has lived through the heyday of the 70s about the sharp and witty band of comedians and you’ll get a quip straight out of one of their infamous sketches. John Cleese was hilarious. He’s every bit the British comedy icon today as he was then - self-deprecating, funny and insightful.

Cleese is touring the US promoting his recently published memoir, So Anyway… and I caught an interview he gave with Jeff Slate of Quartz where he speaks of the art of reinventing oneself. Cleese shares that his spirited approach to life has mainly been around developing successful working methods through outside inspiration, having the support of a ‘venerable patron’ Sir David Frost, and his determination to succeed through relentless trial and error.

Whenever you hear about someone having a new ‘lease of life’, you immediately think that the person has received a shot of energy and is more active than they were before. In Cleese’s case, one specific example was when, before he was 35, he heard a remark by the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung that made him reflect on his life, and specifically on the law of diminishing returns.

“The more that you do of the same thing – if you’re doing the same things at 70 that you did at 40 – then you may have missed the point,” says Cleese. “I think that there are some people who love what they’re doing so much that they just go on doing it forever, and that’s fine. But I think for many of us it’s important to try new things. Of course, we’re loathe to do so, because when you try something new, you’re not very good at it, and you feel a bit embarrassed. But that’s okay!”

Cleese’s approach is similarly appealing to me. It’s simply that it’s all about feeling relaxed and enjoying yourself. Cleese has adapted over the years as a result of different personal realizations, one being that you can control what you do, but you can’t control how people respond to it. So it’s best to relax and be yourself. Nothing funny about that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Competency and Charisma

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The ‘Red Bull’ of management thinkers, Tom Peters, said that leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders. And he’s right. There is no point having inspirational performance and flare if you can’t be effective and reliable. Leadership is entering a new age, and a recent article in the Financial Times by Herminia Ibarra from INSEAD makes an astute observation that the time has come for leaders to roll their sleeves up.

Leadership theories have focused on different things over time. At the start of the 20th century, personal traits of successful leaders were most important. The ‘60s saw a move towards situational leadership and a focus on context: ‘command and control’ for large manufacturing companies and ‘collegial collaboration’ for small, knowledge organisations. The focus turned back to the individual in the ‘90s as organizations became more complex. It was then that a clear distinction between manager (leading on process and procedure) and leader (leading on change) was established.

Today’s environment requires leaders to be inspiring and mobilising, while strategizing and architecting processes and procedures. The details (and getting into them) are no longer just the domain of a ‘boring’ manager role. In fact, boring simply doesn’t apply – efficient systems and robust controls carry value that inspirational messaging and charisma simply can’t.

Leaders who simply ‘talk the talk’ create followers, while true leaders create more leaders by leading by example. Sometimes that might mean providing vision and inspiration in a traditional way, but more often than not it means getting involved and showing how things should be done.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Speaking of Looking

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We live in a visual age. I wrote a post last year about how aesthetics rule, and that humans are visual thinkers first and foremost: we remember 80% of what we see compared with just 20% of what we read. And, thanks in large part to democratization of design, visual literacy has never been higher. When you hear casual moviegoers waxing rhapsodic about those extended long-takes in Birdman, TV viewers geeking out over a six-minute Steadicam shot in HBO’s True Detective, or consumers getting giggly over the look of the new iPhone, you know that visual literacy is our new, true lingua franca.

It is for these reasons that a recently opened art exhibition in New York City is cause for celebration. In October the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened to the public “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection.” I am fortunate to know Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder. This show across seven galleries featuring 81 works collected by Leonard over three decades, explodes the synapses. The New York Times called this exhibition “a transformative gift” and “a sterling act of philanthropy.” It focuses exclusively on a quartet of artists—Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger—who all worked in Paris during the first part of the 20th century. Through the early work of these “four horsemen of the Cubist apocalypse” the Leonard Lauder Collection charts the genesis of a watershed movement in modernism that forever changed the way we look at things. (In broad strokes: if impressionism proposes that color and light—rather than line—is the defining element of an object’s form, Cubism tacks the other way, breaking objects up into various planes to suggest how they exist in time.)

Leonard’s gift represents a watershed moment for the nation’s largest art museum, which had for the most part steered clear of modern art, ceding that space to the equally magnificent but very different Museum of Modern Art. Until the 1990s, the Met held no Cubist of proto-Cubist paintings by any of these four artists. The unveiling of the collection also signals high-water marks in the history of arts philanthropy and the generosity of New York’s society set. In the pages of The Economist, gallery owner William Acquavella called the group of Cubist drawings, paintings, and sculptures, “without doubt the most important collection any private person has put together in many, many years.”

It took Leonard, a lifelong New Yorker, over 30 years to build this unparalleled collection. In a short video on the Met’s website, he explains how he’d been bitten early by the collector’s bug: starting at six with his treasured picture postcards of Miami Beach Art Deco hotels, then World War II posters, then Toulouse-Lautrec prints. “I liked the idea of the concept of looking in depth at a moment in history,” he explains about the appeal of Cubism. “It’s a thrill to put together a harmonious collection, because now I have something I can share.”

From the birth of perspective to Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expression, Pop Art, and Minimalism, each fresh wave of artistic thinking has taught us more about how to look, and how to digest visual content. The Met’s Leonard A. Lauder Collection helps fill an important gap in the narrative about how our visual thinking has progressed. See it. It’s an infinitely better experience than the new eight-story billboard in Times Square.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In the Penal Colony: The Marshall Project (part two of three)

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In a post last week I described America’s prison-industrial complex and provided some unsettling facts about the explosive growth of our nation’s incarcerated populations. In this post, I’d like to turn our attention to some phenomenal work being done by a newly launched journalism outlet to help make the criminal justice system and prison sentencing reform a reality.

Launched in November by former Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge fund manager Neil Barsky, and led by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, The Marshall Project is a not-for-profit non-partisan news organization that exists to spur “a national conversation about criminal justice.” The website promises to be a digital hub for news and debate about our legal and corrections systems. Rather than advocacy driven, Keller envisions the “single-issue site with a million story possibilities” as being a home for “journalism with a sense of purpose.” Keller recently told PBS anchor Jack Ford: “The idea is to try to restore some of the aggressive accountability coverage of the criminal justice system that’s been lost as the American media downsizes in a lot of really important ways.”

In his launch letter, Barsky writes how the inspiration for the project came from his reading two powerful books: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove. The first aimed to demonstrate how mass incarceration “represents the third phase of African-American oppression in the United States, after slavery and Jim Crow.” Considering Alexander’s thesis, Barsky writes: “Intent can be difficult to prove; impact is irrefutable.” King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, meanwhile, is the true-life account of the 1949 case of four African-American males falsely accused of rape in Lake County, FL. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall bravely but futilely fought in Florida’s courts to spare the young men’s lives and it is in his honor that the news organization is named.

In a major coup, the Marshall Project sought and found the best journalists in the business. Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning 30-year veteran of The New York Times, who stresses in a letter from the editor that while the Marshall Project is non-partisan and non-ideological, the organization has an indelible sense of mission. “We want to move the discussion of our institutions of justice—law enforcement, courts, prisons, probation—to a more central place in our national dialogue.”

In an interview with VOX describing his decision to leave the Times to join the startup, Keller suggests how all-encompassing a subject like America’s criminal justice system really is: “. . . not just the very obvious—law enforcement, the courts, the corrections system—but immigration, drug policy, how we treat juveniles. It gets into the realm of education; race, obviously; inequality, obviously. It’s a subject that gives you tremendous license to write about the society we live in.”

The arrival of the Marshall Project comes at the right time. From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO this August, to “political odd couple” Rand Paul and Cory Booker teaming up to support sentencing reform, it seems that the public is ready to open a dialogue about America’s criminal justice system. In my next post on the topic, I’ll talk about additional strides that are happening in education and employment that seek to keep people from getting ensnared in our nation’s penal colony.

Next week, in part three, I will look at other laudatory efforts being made in three areas to help make prison sentencing reform a reality: education, jobs, and scientific testing.

Head here to learn more about The Marshall Project and the important work they’re doing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

“The New Watching”

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Is YouTube the new television?” asked Jonathan Ford the FT’s chief writer in a recent article. Well, sometimes certain questions answer themselves just by being asked. In just shy of a decade, Ford suggests that YouTube — which accounts for more than half of all online viewing and digital advertising worldwide — “has steadily morphed into something akin to a TV network.”

Indeed, when small screen stars are being minted on social media — where they serve as their own writers, actors, show runners, crews, and broadcasters — the rules of broadcasting have changed. All of which impacts our viewing habits. The article quotes Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, explaining that the first “on-demand generation” has new expectations about how they receive content: “They want to watch whenever they choose to do so and on whatever device they prefer.”

Meantime, a story in New York Magazine’s “Vulture” describes how global information and measurement giant Nielsen will soon start measuring viewership for streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nielsen’s new metrics, however, don’t yet work on mobile devices including iPads and cell phones — which means that we’re still a long way away from “hard viewership figures” for critically acclaimed shows like Transparent, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black.

What does the rise of YouTube and streaming services coupled with fuzzy math around viewership figures—what I’d like to call “the new watching” — mean for our industry? If, as communications theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested back in 1964, “the medium is the message,” (that is, the medium that carries content influences how messages are perceived), then the new watching has profound implications for advertising and brands. When you no longer have the Big Three networks delivering 50% shares for All in the Family or 60 Minutes — when people can skip ads altogether watching VOD — it is no longer good enough for commercials merely to sell products and services.

We’ve known this truth for a long time, but living in a 24/7, fractured media environment has made it especially real: the best way for advertising to be relevant, the only real chance the work has to enter the cultural conversation, is for the work to feel and act more like content. Think of the Cheerios “Gracie” spot or Duracell’s Derrick Coleman “Trust Your Power” from Saatchi New York or; or gorgeous, long-form work for Johnnie Walker (BBH) and British Airways (Ogilvy NY). These stellar examples feel more like TV sitcoms, viral social media phenomena, and Scorsese-worthy cinema than traditional shilling.

This kind of work plays well in the new watching landscape because it suggests that people — not companies — are the true owners of the really great brands. Each of those examples works because they’re being generous with brands, encouraging consumers to play with and repurpose the brands on YouTube and other social media platforms. And each works because they recognize that brands are no longer competing with other brands — they are competing against everything else that’s going on in the culture that’s screaming for people’s time and attention.

YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, VOD, and more have rewritten the rules of broadcasting and, by extension, advertising. It is no longer enough for an ad to interrupt Archie Bunker if it hopes to capture America’s attention. To be part of the new watching—to become part of the culture — the work needs to be as interesting, entertaining, and useful as the culture from which it springs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Storytelling Comforts

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A great deal of our lifetime revolves around stories. We tell, listen to, write, read, act out and watch them. Sometimes we tell the same stories over and over again (author Christopher Booker argues there are seven basic plots that recur throughout every kind of story).

I often quote futurist Rolf Jensen: “The highest paid person this century will be the storyteller”. If you think about the esteem we give to storytellers – authors, writers, actors, directors – it’s easy to understand why. But there are other reasons why stories are so important to us.

A recent article by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic talked about storytelling from a psychological standpoint. One of the reasons for our penchant for stories is that they give us a sense of control over the world. They allow us to apply a narrative to things that might otherwise have been without one, providing a meaning, applying a pattern or solving a problem. They make things interesting.

Stories also help us connect with our emotions and help us understand and empathize with others. They tap into things we care about – or should care about. This is where the evolutionary importance of stories comes into the picture. If I told you a story about how to survive, you’d be more likely to put that story into practice and actually survive, rather than if I had just given you the facts. That’s a pretty hefty value-add right there.